Today Robert Hariri, one of the pioneers in the development of stem cell therapy, launched Celularity a company with a mission to make regenerative medicine as affordable and as convenient as the polio vaccine.
To give you an example of what Hariri (full disclosure, who is a good friend) envisions, consider the excitement over immunotherapy medicines that,"harness the power of the body's immune system to fight cancer" and chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapy in particular such as those developed by Novartis and Kite.
CAR-T is not a pill. Or a shot you can get at Walgreens. Instead, it is a very complex and expensive process where immune cells are removed from someone with cancer and then armed with new proteins that allow them to recognize cancer. Then large quantities of these cells are injected into the patient. These cells persist in the body, becoming “living drugs.”
Put another way, CAR-T is the ultimate hand-crafted therapy.
They are true miracles. But the cost, complexity and the need to carefully administer CAR-T at a handful of academic cancer centers means that making them available to everyone who might benefit will not be easy.
Further, the laborious customization characterizing CAR-T is due to its dependence on using one's own cells and then engineering them to avoid an immune response that shuts downs every organ. Donors for bone marrow transplants are hard to come because of the danger that cells from another body will be viewed as invaders by our immune system.
Democratizing cell therapy requires a reliable source of cells that can be mass produced and used off the shelf in any physician's office. Only one scientist on the planet has developed a nearly inexhaustible source of stem cells that overcome the immune system's lethal resistance.
That is Bob Hariri. And there is only one company on the planet that can broadly manufacture, develop and distribute cell therapies of all kinds - including CAR-T - on an everyday basis. And that's Celularity.
Many of the media accounts of Celularity's launch note Hariri's distinguished career as a scientist and the fact that he holds more cell therapy patents than any other researcher.
In an ironic sort of way, this is not surprising. Hariri, like his hero Thomas Edison, does not consider himself just a discoverer of new gadgets. As Sir Harold Evans wrote in "They Made America: "Thomas Edison is thought of as America's foremost inventor, with 1,093 patents in his name, but his most important work was translating the insight of invention into the practical reality of innovation through the long process of development and commercial introduction."
"Edison's transcendent innovation was to understand that the lightbulb he invented would be a mere novelty unless he could find a way to integrate it into an economical and safe electrical system. The simple act of flicking a light switch in offices and homes depended on a complex of dynamos, cables, and numerous connections that all had to be devised, costed and manufactured. Edison had also to fulfill the entrepreneurial role of raising the money, arranging the legal rights-of-way and cultivating the market. Edison was a supreme innovator."
So too is Hariri, who in many ways is the Edison of regenerative medicine. Over 15 years ago, he demonstrated that it was possible to collect 10 times as many stem cells from a single post-birth placenta as have been gathered from any other single source. He then promptly told the rest of the scientific world the recipe for doing so. His hope was that stem cells would be democratized, and be broadly available to researchers, doctors, and patients instead of being controlled by a handful of well-connected scientists who used their dominance to stifle other forms of stem cell research.
But incredibly, very few researchers seized the moment. So, Hariri - while at Celgene - invested nearly a decade and $500 million on democratizing stem cells.
First, he had to develop a process of procuring placentas under tight quality-control systems and with a high level of predictability.
Second, he had to create a manufacturing scheme that's necessary for economies of scale and quality control. Both were and are necessary for cell therapy to be a realistic clinical tool.
Third, he had to find the right "light bulb." (There were other lighting technologies that use electricity before Edison. And Edison himself develop dozens of light bulbs that worked. The challenge was developing a product that was not just affordable, but reliable. And to demonstrate that, Edison, as Sir Harold points out, had to create a whole system of distribution and uses.)
One of those "light bulbs" were, in fact, CAR-T. At the time, Hariri build CAR-T to see how they stacked up against placental-derived stem cells is delivering cancer-fighting instructions to the immune system. The placenta is unique in that it is not rejected by the body. Rather, a placenta can modify the host immune system and evade any host immune detection. As Hariri told me: "That was the premise behind our searching the placenta for these cells, and it served as the basis for our product development and, ultimately, clinical development, which has shown that allogeneic transplant is accepted without problems."
To demonstrate that capacity, Dr. Hariri has developed and used placental stem cells to treat several diseases at every stage of life. He has shown it is possible to use placental cells to update our biological software, upgrade the cellular 'processors' that create the connections and share the information that regeneration requires.
Now with Celularity he is poised to manufacture stem cells that as Hariri told me, can be "easily deployed, readily adoptable like a medicine, and could integrate into the existing healthcare system, where practitioners are most comfortable with traditional pharmaceuticals".
That means millions, if not billions, of people, will live longer free from disease and disability. By anyone's estimation, the lightbulb's impact on humanity would pale in comparison to that accomplishment if Hariri and Celularity succeed in commercializing stem cells.